In October 1998, a polite gay college kid—the now famous Matthew Shepard—was lured into a truck by two local Laramie, Wyoming, boys, driven to the outskirts of town, tied to a wooden fence, tortured and left for dead. The beating—and Shepard's subsequent death a few days later from a massive head injury—brought in the media hordes, many of whom saw Shepard as a martyr for gay Americans and the turn-of-the-(20th)-century cowboy town of Laramie as a great big symbol of middle American hickdom, simmering with homophobia.
Just four weeks after the murder, playwright Moiss Kaufman and 10 members of the Tectonic Theater Project descended on Laramie with their own tape recorders and notepads, to interview the townspeople—barkeeps, professors, police officers, doctors, clergymen, friends and acquaintances of Shepard and the two perps, 200 people in all—with the idea of deconstructing this too-easy narrative and constructing a fuller, more honest one about the tragedy. What Kaufman and his cohorts have come up with is remarkable: a balanced, nuanced and unsensational examination of a small town whose constantly (and sincerely) uttered motto, "Live and let live," gets belied by fears and prejudices so deep that they split the town wide open. The theatrical result, in its own small way, is akin to the mighty portrait of the mysteries of American rage that Norman Mailer gave us in The Executioner's Song.
The play is long and ambitious—with two short breaks, it's two hours and 40 minutes long—weaving together a gripping portrait of a town in the throes of an identity crisis brought on by sudden and unspeakable violence. Rather than constructing a conventional narrative of scenes and dialogue, Kaufman has his actors simply walk on a darkened stage and—alone or in small groups—stand with their arms at their sides and tell the townspeople's stories, using the very words they spoke into Kaufman's tape recorders. The production's eight actors play up to a dozen parts apiece, and in their talk—aggrieved, angry, self-justifying, self-conflicted—slowly stitch together a moving tapestry of a town coming to grips with (or refusing to come to grips with) its sexual demons. The acting is strong and limber throughout, particularly by Sean Engard, Angel Correa, Mary Fae Smith and, in a series of portraits that lend the play some needed levity, Ryan O'Melia. Kaufman refrains from the easy moralizing or stereotyping you might expect from such raw material—he's a staunch humanist working diligently to give a fair hearing to all parties—and he leaves the audience with a renewed respect for (and a renewed terror of) the dark complexities of the conscience of small-town America.
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THE LARAMIE PROJECT AT GARDEN GROVE PLAYHOUSE, 12001 ST. MARKS ST., GARDEN GROVE, (714) 897-5122. FRI.-SAT., 8:30 P.M. THROUGH AUG. 27. $15.